Inside Parliament: Veteran pro-Europeans offer lessons in national history: Baroness Williams calls for 'great debate' about future of EU - Minister denies that the Government is isolated

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The former Labour education secretary Baroness Williams of Crosby returned to her old ministerial speciality yesterday to suggest that more emphasis be given to teaching children foreign languages and European history.

Taking part in a Lords debate on relations between the Government and other members of the European Union, Lady Williams complained that the National Curriculum was exactly that.

Shirley Williams, as she was when education secretary from 1976 to 1979, called for a 'great debate' on the future shape of the EU in the run-up to the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference. Ever the optimist, she wanted it enlightened by 'intelligent and thoughtful' contributions from the media.

The issue might even be addressed through the National Curriculum, she said. 'We might give some recognition to the fact that we are members of the EU by giving more prominence to the learning of foreign languages and by actually teaching our children something about the history and the heritage of that Europe of which we are a part. We teach them nothing about this. The National Curriculum is exactly what it says it is. No more and no less.'

Lady Williams joined her Liberal Democrat colleague, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, and Lord Richard, Leader of the Labour peers, in accusing the Government of a negative attitude to the EU and 'kidding itself' with phrases about being 'at the heart of Europe'. In 1971 all three were among 69 Labour MPs who defied the party whip and voted in favour of common market membership.

Opening the debate, another old Labour heavyweight, Lord Healey, said he could not remember a time when Britain had less influence in the world. At a time when conflicts, unemployment and exchange rates increasingly required co-operation between states, Britain was being was being 'sidelined' because of the Government's behaviour.

Junior minister Lord Henley denied that the Government was isoloted. 'Being at the centre of Europe, as we believe we are, does not mean we are in the middle of opinion on every issue. 'What it means is setting the pace and producing some innovations that will drive the Union to a position with which we and other member states can feel comfortable.'

Lord Jenkins, Leader of the Liberal Democrat peers and a former President of the European Commission, said that since ejection from the exchange rate mechanism, he had been unable to discover any sinews of direction in British European policy.

'There are times when the Prime Minister has given a new meaning to Lloyd George's old joke about Lord Derby being like a cushion which bore the imprint of the last man who sat upon him.

'If there are faintly pro-European noises which emerge from the Prime Minister or the Government on Tuesday, then there is a briefing on Wednesday they're not to be taken too seriously, and on Thursday there is a statement which sounds as though the Government thinks anything beyond a free trade area is a centralised, federalist, socialist, Gallic conspiracy.'

Maintaining that deepening the Union was not the enemy of widening, and that a single currency was still a feasible prospect, Lord Jenkins said the Government's 'minimalist approach' worked against enlargement and the entry of the new democracies of eastern Europe.

By persistently giving the impression of wanting to weaken the EU, the Government undermined the purpose of membership. 'The Poles and the Czechs don't want just to join a free trade area . . . What they're interested in is a political and security community to give them a sense of belonging.'

Lord Jenkins chided John Major for 'some rather curious history' included in a overtly patriotic speech on Monday when he said Britain had a monarchy founded by the Kings of Wessex over 1,100 years ago. 'I'm not sure many parts of the UK regard their monarchy has being descended from Wessex, nor that it is very natural to cite our two 700-year old universities, together with our language, as being worthy signs of our ancient separateness and ancient insularity.

'It is surprising because for a substantial number of centuries, the universities operated almost exclusively not in the indigenous language, but one which attempted a European universality,' Lord Jenkins said.

'The Prime Minister really would be better advised to look for his European policy to our national interest in the future, which means finding and keeping some real allies in Europe rather than to such peculiar ideas of the past.'